In the latest series of terrorist attacks in Europe, Swiss citizens were also recently hit in Nice. For Swiss Confederation President Johann Schneider-Ammann this is yet more proof that, regardless of cooperation and the engagement of security services, the risk of terrorism cannot be reduced to zero. In this interview for CorD, Schneider-Ammann says that it is precisely because of this that it was insisted at the spring conference in Geneva, organised in cooperation with the United Nations, that prevention is the best answer to extremism. “The best chances of preventing violent extremism exist when there is peace, security, sustainable development, the rule of law and human rights,” said Schneider-Ammann.
Here we also speak to the President of the Swiss Confederation about the talks with the leaders of the European Union aimed at reaching common positions on the issue of immigration policy and ensuring that Switzerland stays in the EU’s single market.
The best chances of preventing violent extremism exist when there is peace, security, sustainable development, the rule of law and human rights. There is a need to foster inclusive political solutions where communities feel politically, socially or ethnically marginalised
Mr President, this summer started with terrorist attacks around Europe, leading to an atmosphere of uncertainty and anxiety all over the continent. How do you see the current situation?
The situation is worrying, as Europe is facing terrorist attacks with seemingly random targets. Every European country, including Switzerland, realises just how fragile the values that we all share and cherish are, such as peace, democracy, freedom and stability. They must therefore be constantly reaffirmed. At the same time, we should not allow ourselves to fall into a state of anxiety, not only because fear is a bad advisor, but also because the terrorists’ goal is precisely to cause terror and weaken our confidence.
Do you see enough coordination in Europe and worldwide when it comes to fighting terrorism?
A lot has already been done in this regard, but there is always room for improvement. However, it is important to bear in mind that there is no such thing as zero risk, even with very well-coordinated and effective intelligence services. It must be acknowledged that terrorism cannot be tackled by security measures alone. That is why Switzerland co-organised a conference last April in Geneva with the United Nations on preventing violent extremism , where States exchanged views on the importance of dialogue and conflict prevention, as well as on respect for human rights, with the aim of reducing the appeal of violent extremism and tackling its direct and structural causes. The best chances of preventing violent extremism exist when there is peace, security, sustainable development, the rule of law and human rights. There is a need to foster inclusive political solutions where communities feel politically, socially or ethnically marginalised.
A new wave of refugees is coming to Europe. A record number of people are trying to seek refuge in Switzerland. How serious a problem is this for Switzerland?
First of all, I want to stress here the dramatic situation faced by the hundreds of thousands of people on the move, risking their lives on the Mediterranean Sea, as well as along the Balkan route, to seek a safe haven. Our humanitarian duty is to ensure that these people can live in dignity, safety and peace. Switzerland is committed to fulfilling its international obligations, by offering protection to those whose lives are threatened. Switzerland registered about 40,000 asylum requests in 2015, the highest number for many years. At 25 per cent, the proportion of foreign nationals in Switzerland is higher than in the EU. Apart from helping individuals in need of protection, it is also essential from our point of view to continue assisting the countries in crisis. We have to provide assistance on site and help to prevent people from leaving.
With a population of more than 507 million, the EU is Switzerland’s most important trading partner by far. Switzerland exports more than half of its goods to the EU, and almost three quarters of Swiss imports come from the EU
Do you think the situation could worsen in light of political tensions in Turkey?
It is certainly a little premature to evaluate the consequences on the refugees of the current political situation in Turkey. This will have to be monitored carefully in the next months.
It appears as though Switzerland and the EU are still not on the same page regarding immigration policy. Brussels is warning that Switzerland might lose access to the single market if it goes ahead with plans to impose controls on the free movement of EU citizens. What would be your response?
The Federal Council continues to seek a mutually agreed solution on a safeguard clause with the EU regarding the implementation of the new constitutional provisions on immigration. A mutually agreed solution would not only secure Switzerland’s future access to the single market, but also ensure legal certainty for the Swiss economy. With a population of more than 507 million, the EU is Switzerland’s most important trading partner by far. Switzerland exports more than half of its goods to the EU, and almost three quarters of Swiss imports come from the EU. Switzerland, in turn, is an important trading partner for the EU, occupying third place after the United States and China. A mutually agreed solution is therefore in the interests of both parties. A unilateral decision to control the immigration of EU citizens remains a measure of last resort, as it could strain our future relations with the EU.
Do you believe that the Swiss-EU presidential meeting in September could lead to a sustainable solution without resulting in a rift with the EU?
During my last meeting with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in July, he expressed the European Commission’s willingness to find a mutually agreed solution with Switzerland. Since this meeting, discussions with the EU have been intensified on a technical level. Jean-Claude Juncker and I will evaluate the results of these discussions at our next meeting in September.
How are businesses reacting to this outcome so far, given that the EU is Switzerland’s most important trading partner?
It is important for Swiss businesses that the Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons can be upheld. Conditions which simplify the international mobility of labour result in a more efficient use of resources, making it easier for Swiss firms to recruit staff with appropriate qualifications for any particular job. Swiss businesses are dependent on regulated and stable relations with the EU, which is our most important trading partner. Switzerland is a safe country and remains an extremely attractive location with outstanding educational opportunities.
How has Brexit impacted on EU-Swiss negotiations related to curbing the influx of foreigners?
Regardless of the outcome of the Brexit referendum, the Federal Council strives to continue the ongoing discussions with the EU on the implementation of the new constitutional provisions on immigration. During the meeting with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in July, we both acknowledged, however, that the outcome of the UK referendum had complicated efforts to find a solution within the timeframe set out in the constitution.
It is not easy to foresee the long-term consequences of the outcome of the UK referendum. What is decisive is the time it takes to eliminate the legal uncertainties, which are a direct cause of the referendum
ZEW experts believe that the Brexit vote is partly responsible for the decline in Swiss economic sentiment. What are your expectations over the longer term?
It is not easy to foresee the longterm consequences of the outcome of the UK referendum. What is decisive is the time it takes to eliminate the legal uncertainties, which are a direct cause of the referendum. It is clear that legal certainty is critical for the economic prosperity of our country, but I stress once again that Switzerland is an outstanding location for doing business.
This was a busy summer for you, during which you travelled to the countries of the Far East. How do you see the prospects of closer partnerships with those countries?
Switzerland sees great opportunities in strengthening partnerships with countries in this region, particularly in terms of business cooperation, education, innovation and research. My official visits to Singapore and South Korea in July provided an occasion to present and discuss Switzerland’s dual-track system of vocational and professional education with my counterparts, who showed great interest in further developing cooperation in that area. Incidentally, I also had the pleasure of discussing this topic with Prime Minister Vučić during my last visit to Belgrade in October 2015 and at our meeting in Bern in June of this year.
The EU and NATO are struggling to fix their relationship with Russia. In your opinion, how important is communication with Moscow, especially in terms of the fight against global terrorism?
As a neutral state with a long-standing tradition in mediation, Switzerland is committed to promoting international law and cooperative security. Switzerland believes that dialogue should remain a key component in international relations, including with regard to Russia. The OSCE is an important instrument to address European security challenges together with Russia and to restore lost confidence. Communication and coordination are especially necessary in the fight against terrorism, as terrorism is a global phenomenon that needs to be tackled collectively.
As a neutral state with a long-standing tradition in mediation, Switzerland is committed to promoting international law and cooperative security. Switzerland believes that dialogue should remain a key component in international relations, including with regard to Russia
You have said that the Western Balkans is one of the priorities of Swiss policy. What are the main priorities?
Switzerland supports the process of the Western Balkan states towards European integration, which has contributed to stability and prosperity in the region. I would like to recall that there is a sizeable diaspora from this region, including from Serbia, living in Switzerland, and this naturally reinforces Switzerland’s interests in and exchanges with the Western Balkans. To this end, Switzerland has developed an important cooperation programme in the region, which focuses on five main pillars: 1) Democratisation, decentralisation and local governance; 2) Economic development; 3) Vocational training and employment; 4) Water and energy supply; 5) Health. In addition, Switzerland promotes regional integration and cooperation between the countries of the Western Balkans, notably by promoting research or by contributing to regional structures, such as the Regional Cooperation Council instituted under the Southeast European Cooperation Process.
As part of its peace policy in the Western Balkans, Switzerland also encourages reconciliation efforts, notably by promoting transitional justice and by supporting political dialogue, and remains present with the Kosovo Force (KFOR) in Kosovo. Last but not least, Switzerland has concluded migration partnerships with several countries in the region, including Serbia, to help the authorities manage migration flows. This cooperation proved to be extremely useful during the migration crisis in 2015, allowing us to provide swift support to Serbia in accommodating stranded migrants.
You have also stressed the importance of stability for attracting foreign investments. How do you see Serbia in that respect?
Stability is key for any country wishing to attract foreign investment, and Serbia is no exception. What also seems to have been key in Serbia’s case is its commitment to improving its macroeconomic figures, its efforts to undertake a series of structural reforms and adopt new laws that have improved its business climate, thereby attracting new foreign investors. In terms of Swiss investment in Serbia, allow me to remind readers that in 2014 Switzerland was the single largest bilateral foreign investor in Serbia, which shows that Switzerland has the potential to become a leading investor in the country. Also, Swiss exports increased by 22 per cent in 2015. The establishment, back in 2014, of the Swiss-Serbian Chamber of Commerce, comprising some 60 members, also contributes to our vibrant bilateral trade. That said, further measures to improve legal certainty and simplify the country’s tax system would be welcome and would certainly help to continue attracting foreign investment.